Every so often, an album comes along that isn’t just a great collection of songs played beautifully; an album that pushes a few personal buttons and maybe touches a few raw nerves as well. Rod Picott’s ‘Paper Hearts and Broken Arrows’ is one of those albums that creates a very personal connection. Maybe it’s an East Coast thing between Maine in the USA and Fife in Scotland; you don’t need to look too hard to see the parallels and ‘Washington County’ paints a picture of an area where genteel resorts sit side by side with poverty-stricken former industrial towns and villages. They’re three thousand miles apart, but it’s the same experience.

Just taking a step to one side for a moment, as music has moved into the digital realm, so have some of the ways of getting it out there and letting people know about it. It’s not so long since review copies arrived as CDs (or vinyl if you want go back a bit further) with an A4 press release, through the letterbox. Now they arrive in your inbox and an artist or PR team can include much more material with no extra distribution costs. Which means that artwork and credits, additional photos and lyric sheets are fairly common now and there’s a relatively recent addition of the artist’s ‘track-by-track’ notes. Reviewers should rely more on their ears and instincts than press releases, but you can sometimes pick up a useful insight into the artist’s vision. In the case of Rod Picott, there’s always something worth reading when he puts fingers to keyboard.

The story behind ‘Valentine’s Day’ on this album is a perfect example. It’s a very honest song, painfully so, that’s stripped back to the raw basics of acoustic guitar and cracked vocal. Rod’s notes tell us that the original recording was a full band version that sounded “wonderful – and completely wrong”, like “an Eagles track with a guy that can’t really sing”; the arrangement was too perfect and in Rod’s words again, “for me, perfect is almost always wrong”. Producer Neilson Hubbard liked the stripped-back version and three takes later it was in the can.

There are a couple of strands that run through the album, Rod’s acceptance of a spell of single life that surfaces in the opening song ‘Lover’, ‘Valentine’s Day’ and ‘Mona Lisa’ where the loneliness exists for creatives even inside a relationship, and the autobiographical songs ‘Lost in the South’ and ‘Mark of Your Father’ which both reference his background and his father with ‘Lost in the South’ using his father as a jumping-off point for Rod’s early experiences in the South, while ‘Mark of Your Father’ explores the complicated nature of father-son relationships using Marvin Gaye as an example of how bad things can really get.

And then there are a few songs taking their inspiration from other areas. The dark and menacing ‘Revenuer’, with its dirty guitars and screaming slide solo is inspired by a Taylor Brown novel and explores that thin line between right and wrong when your choices are limited and times are hard. ‘Frankie Lee’ is an outlaw song where the main character always accepts his ultimate fate as the electric chair and, like a lot of Rod’s more stark songs, wouldn’t sound out of place on The Boss’s ‘Nebraska’ (and I know I’ve made that link before).

Rod’s a fan of boxing and ‘Sonny Liston’ is a song that pulls at some of the threads running through a lot of Rod’s work. Sonny Liston was a complex character, torn between the world he came from and the dubious world of professional boxing and gangland connections that he joined without ever gaining the respect of either. The man who took his world title, Cassius Clay/Muhammad Ali is better remembered now, but the Sonny Liston story is full of loose ends, links to organised crime, drugs, sudden death and astonishing sporting prowess. Rod weaves all of these strands into a powerful and economic narrative with a simple alliterative and assonant chorus: “Two big fists pumping like pistons, nobody punched like Sonny Liston”.

Fourteen albums in, Rod Picott is still pushing at the boundaries of his craft, still looking for ways to create songs that mean something, to him and to his audience. Let’s not use the word ”perfect” to describe ‘Paper Heart and Broken Arrows”; let’s go with an outstanding collection of beautifully-crafted songs delivered by outstanding musicians and a singer whose voice cracks with power and emotion. OK with you?

‘Paper Hearts and Broken Arrows’ is released in the UK on Friday June 10on Welding Rod Records.

No videos yet for songs on the album, but here’s a link to a live performance of the fabulous ‘Rust Belt Fields’:

It looks like it may be some time before we escape the influence of the pandemic on recorded music, particularly in the areas of Americana and folk where the traditions of storytelling and reflecting the world around us are important. ‘Falling Under Spells’ isn’t crammed with references to COVID, but it’s certainly the basis for the album’s two closing songs, ‘Everybody Inside’ and ‘Nowhere Fast’, while the problems of twenty-first century America, including its forty-fifth President, are also themes that permeate the album, along with a few magical and mystical references.

The album’s opening song ‘Ruleless Games’ attempts to explain the unfairness of the world to a child and features some of the album’s sound signatures, the muted trumpet sound and the plaintive, higher register, Neil Young-like vocal of James Combs that’s echoed by the Crazy Horse feel of some of the arrangements. The horns are gentle and muted, not the strident stabs that are used to punctuate our soul classics; they’re more mariachi than Motown or Stax and contribute to the mellow feel of the album.

There are a few more nods in obvious and less obvious directions to other musical styles on the album. ‘Spells’ hints at The Byrds with some sixties tremolo guitar and maybe even a touch of The Stones’ ‘The Last Time’ (with added trumpet); all elements that you might have heard in referenced in the Americana canon. ‘Cut and Run’ is slightly different in that the reggae-tinged arrangement has more than a hint of the Gorillaz song ‘Clint Eastwood’ with piano and slide guitar. The title repeats like a mantra through the song as it urges us to abandon America’s twisted priorities (and their hype-man).

Despite the ominous and mystical feel of songs like ‘Strange Signs’ and ‘Spells’, ‘Falling Under Spells’, manages to generate a gentle wave of optimism for the future with songs like ‘True Believer’ and ‘Joy is Allowed’, a reminder that even in the most awful times, it’s ok to find joy somewhere. And any album that’s underpinned by the gentler side od Neil Young is fine by me.

‘Falling Under Spells’ is released in the UK on Friday May 27th on High Pine Steeple Recordings (1001).

Here’s a link to the video for ‘Strange Signs’ (featuring April Mann):

‘Breathe In the World, Breathe Out Music’ is one of those albums where, at first listen, you genuinely have no idea what’s coming next; more about that shortly, but some background first. Mike Stevens is a hugely respected harmonica virtuoso who has played the Grand Ole Opry over 300 times and has experimented widely with his playing techniques to create a unique style. He’s also recovering after a diagnosis of Lyme disease which left him virtually unable to play. It’s the kind of situation that can make you re-evaluate and hit the reset button, which is exactly what Mike has done with this album; he’s playing by feel rather than by experience and practice.

The album’s opening song, and the lead single, gives no clues about what’s coming up on the rest of the album. It’s, well, it’s jaunty; it’s played as an upbeat and offbeat reggae tune with a really positive message, a shiny, polished Polly Harris vocal and even a choir of children coming in at the end. It’s really uplifting but doesn’t even hint at what’s coming up. You have to expect the unexpected and the version of Gordon Lightfoot’s ‘The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald’ is a perfect example.

The 1976 original is in the style of a folk ballad told in seven lengthy verses and it’s all about the story. It’s been covered before, in a pretty leaden version, by the Dandy Warhols, but Mike’s interpretation is very different; it’s an instrumental where the arrangement follows the narrative flow of Gordon Lightfoot’s original. The song starts peacefully with the violining guitar part evoking seagull cries and builds steadily towards the clamour of the fatal storm before the closing calm of remembrance of the dead sailors. It works as a stand-alone piece, but it’s even better if you know the original song. Another example of the unexpected is ‘Amazing Grace’, which opens in a Hendrix Star-Spangled Banner’ style before calming down into a more peaceful version of the hymn. It’s stunning harp playing, technically and creatively.

And you could write endlessly about the creativity that runs like a pulse through the album. ‘Orange Blossom Special’ paints an aural picture with harp and guitar of a train pulling out of the station and building up to cruising speed while the closing track, ‘Put Your Phone Down’, is a freeform harmonica improvisation punctuated by short, almost random, spoken lines exhorting us to celebrate life without the filters of technology. And those are just my personal highlights.

‘Breathe In the World, Breathe Out Music’ is a stunningly creative and innovative album with a surprise around every corner; you think you’ve heard everything the album has to offer, then in comes the zither on the cinematic ‘Jesse’s Request’. This is a genuinely original album.

‘Breathe In the World, Breathe Out Music’ is released on May 20th on Stony Plain Records (SPCD1452).

Here’s a link to the video for ‘Livin’ in Sarnia’, featuring Cory James Mitchell:

‘Ride My Galaxy’ looks like it will be one of three Pawn Shop Saints/Jeb Barry albums conceived in the pandemic to be released in the near future. The thing that unifies this album and will probably unify the remaining two albums is Jeb Barry’s voice. The songs range from the nostalgic West Coast country/rock of ‘Chevy Nova’ to the unrelenting gloom of ‘Ain’t No Mama Here’, but the cracked emotion of the voice that combines the vulnerability of Jackson Browne with the raw power of Greg Dulli is a constant.

There are the trademark Pawn Shop Saints acoustic staples aplenty on the album, but there are also a few elements of pop and rock pushing through the mix. There’s an opening studio chat on ‘Exits’ about getting the song down “mistakes and all” that sets the tone for the album. It’s much more about capturing the feel of the songs, rather than perfect performances. There’s no shortage of nods in the direction of iconic pop and rock figures and songs either. The I-VI chords at the start of ‘diane’ have a hint of Sam Cooke’s ‘Cupid’, while ‘Jenny Why’ has a hint of Danny Whitten’s ‘I Don’t Want to Talk About It’ and an arrangement that’s reminiscent of The Band. The paranoid menace of ‘Wicked’ is emphasised by a band sound that could be Crazy Horse at its most rough and ready. You get the picture; you can pick out the influences, while it’s all held together by great songwriting and Jeb Barry’s voice.

The album opens with a song that isn’t in typical Pawn Shop Saints territory; ‘Chevy Nova’ is unashamed seventies nostalgia. It’s a cars, girls, booze and drugs song, but in an innocent and naïve way. The closing song is firmly back in Pawn Shop Saints lyrical territory with a story of the pain caused by a broken relationship, but with a grungier sound that’s emphasised by a completely live studio recording.

‘Ride My Galaxy’ is an intriguing blend of the hard-edged dirt-poor Americana typified by the floods, crop failures and fever deaths of ’Ain’t No Mama Here’ and some new elements pop, punk, psychedelia and even nostalgia. It’s a good mix and creates a fascinating album.

‘Ride My Galaxy’ is out now Dollyrocker Records (DR20221). Here’s the video for ‘Exits’:

Three decades in the business and fifteen albums is quite an impressive achievement. ‘Every Seed We Plant’ is the next step; album sixteen. The good news is that Alice’s creativity is undimmed after that time and her voice is still as powerful as ever over the whole of its wide range. The album displays a wide range of styles from the slow country waltz feel of ‘Sweet Elaine’ to the soulful rock of the album’s opener ‘For Granted’. The styles may vary but there are several themes related to the last two years running through the album that create a sense of unity across the piece. Apart from the obvious references to grief, there’s anger, redemption, joy and a sense of rebirth. The album’s opening and closing songs both have references to planting and nurturing.

The two songs that best demonstrate the emotional range of the album are ‘Dispatch’ and ‘Sweet Elaine’. ‘Dispatch’ is a very angry song about the real events that led to the killing of a black retired Marine, Kenneth Chamberlain, in his home in White Plains, New York. The story’s told from the point of view of the dispatcher responsible for sending the police to activations of LifeAid medical alarms, who was called by Chamberlain asking the police to withdraw. It’s a very angry song about something that’s still way too common in America today, told in a very compelling way. ‘Sweet Elaine’ is a slow country-rock waltz telling the beautiful story of a woman and a dog who profoundly change each other’s lives. The slight vibrato on the vocal and the Eagles-style vocal harmonies create a happy and relaxed feel that perfectly matches the positive narrative.

The album opens with ‘For Granted’, a soulful rock groove in a seventies style that evokes Maggie Bell or even an in-tune version of Janis Joplin. It nods in the direction of Etta James’s ‘I’d Rather Go Blind’ (the unnecessary cover of choice for many a second-rate blues-rock band) with a rock band line-up including organ and piano (with the obligatory triplets of course). Alice’s voice is so versatile that there are comparisons to be made with Joni Mitchell, Rickie Lee Jones and many others. The band arrangements are equally diverse, with ‘Jersey’, not surprisingly, having a hint of the E Street Band as it takes a hammer to the New Jersey stereotypes that Alice has probably heard for most of her life.

As a whole, the album takes a journey through the various stages of recovery from the pandemic and its associated woes from grief to rebirth, with the final two songs, ‘Sweet Elaine’ and ‘’Every Seed’ looking forward to a more hopeful future. It’s a lovely example of creating beautiful art from unpromising raw materials.

‘Every Seed We Plant’ is out now in the UK on Alice Otter Music (AO116).

Here’s the video for the title song:

There’s a play on words in the title of this album; you can exchange the word “people” for “folk” and the literal meaning doesn’t change, but some new layers are added. Rupert Wates recognises this in a press release quote where he describes folk music as: “music of the people, by the people, for the people”. The album is a return to Rupert’s English folk roots, a celebration of his supporters and a celebration of the themes and traditional tales that run through the history of the genre. The celebration takes the form of a set of songs created in the folk idiom, using familiar themes and delivered with acoustic guitar backing and very little else apart from a bit of fiddle and some additional vocals.

The stripped-back delivery affects the structure of the songs as well. The guitar playing, accomplished as it is, isn’t there to bedazzle; it’s there to underpin and counterpoint the melody and enhance the message of the song. Without guitar solos or instrumental breaks, there’s room for the lyrics to take as long as it needs to get to the end of the story, while including traditional elements such as line repetition and call and response.

There’s a feeling that the album isn’t so much about the individual songs, but more about using the building blocks of the genre (the powerful narratives, the murder ballads, smuggling, stories of war and the mythical to create authentic but completely new songs in the folk idiom. This project in other hands could have become a pastiche, but Rupert Wates is much too good a writer and performer for that. He expertly marries intricate guitar parts to beguiling melodies to create a fascinating collection of songs that pays tribute to his folk roots.

The album’s ten songs (twelve if you split the two medleys into their component songs) are all well-crafted pieces of work but you can pick out two or three to represent the overall feel of the album. The high register picking on the ‘All the Fair Ladies’ leads into a wooing song with an additional call and response female vocal. After a short instrumental bridge, it’s straight into another call and response song on the theme of the spurned lover with some additional vocal harmonies. ‘Oh Captain’ is the mythological song of the bunch telling the story of a captured mermaid despite to return to her family, while ‘The North Road’ is a murder ballad relentlessly pushed on by a relentless fast finger-picked rhythm as it tells the story of the murder of a drummer boy and its inevitable outcome.

‘For the People’ is a neat celebration of the Engish folk style, created by a singer-songwriter with a huge knowledge of that genre. Rupert Wates is a master of his craft and he’s produced a lovely tribute to the genre and his fans.

‘For the People’ is out now on Bite Music (BR12116).

‘Leo’ is the third instalment in the ongoing collaboration between songwriter Pete Gow and multi-instrumentalist Joe Bennett. The previous two albums ‘Here There’s No Sirens’ and ‘The Fragile Line’ have a signature sound that features Joe’s string arrangements; on this album, he’s moved further back into the orchestra to add some horns to the mix, creating a wider palette and a much punchier sound to frame Pete’s (mostly) personal songs. The songs are given a widescreen treatment that nods in the direction of “Born to Run”-era Springsteen, but there are a few other comparisons that maybe aren’t so obvious.

In 1978, a Scottish songwriter living in London released an album featuring a few songs about working in the music business and the characters touching it at tangents that you meet in bars and clubs. ‘City to City’ was a classic Gerry Rafferty album, marrying classic songwriting with interesting arrangements and “Where Would We Be Going” is in the same mould, creating perfect settings for the emotional tug of Pete’s soulful vocals.

The album’s eight songs (‘Where Else Would Be Going?’ tops and tails the album in an upbeat and then a more reflective version) all reward repeated listens. There’s a lot to recommend and to write about every song, but I’ll concentrate on three that cover most of the bases.

‘Side III of London Calling’ is a seedy story of a musician trying to get wired and laid after the gig’s over, set against a mid-tempo groove that nods in the direction of The E Street Band. It’s authentic and gritty and compares the perfection of the woman being pursued to, guess what, ‘Side III of London Calling’. The lyrics keep your attention as wait to hear the outcome and the tune is an absolute earworm. There’s a hint of Elvis Costello/Sam & Dave with a falling down reference and a classic turnaround in the final chorus when the central character describes himself as “just about as welcome as Side V of Sandinista”. It’s great fun.

‘Leonard’s Bar’ is another beast entirely; it’s the centrepiece of the album, it clocks in at over seven minutes and it’s not autobiographical unless Pete has a secret career as an armed robber that he’s not telling us about. It’s difficult to resist the comparison with The Boss’s ‘Meeting Across the River’ as the story unwinds of the career petty criminal coaxed into one last job. The song weaves its way through tempo changes as it builds to the heist section before closing out with The Leo Horns.

‘The City is a Symphony’ is a Joe Bennett co-write that uses the full dynamic range offered by a rock band plus horns and strings as a setting for a lyric that intertwines the pathos of the present with a flashback to a time with a former lover. Joe’s arrangement blends all of the instrumental elements perfectly to create a symphony in miniature that blends seamlessly into the final song, the reflective version of ‘Where Else Would We Be Going?’.

‘Leo’ is a marvellous combination of the important elements of songwriting and production, pulling in ideas from all over the place, including musical references from The Clash to Clapton to create an album with earworms aplenty and a wide range of musical textures that emphasise the power of the lyrics. I’ve not reviewed a better album this year.

‘Leo’ is released on Friday April 22nd on Clubhouse Records.

Here’s the album’s opening single ‘Where Else Would We Be Going?’:

We’re still seeing and hearing albums created during the lockdown using remote technology; this one’s a bit different in that it’s the first of three albums recorded by Steve Dawson during the pandemic featuring songs that might otherwise never have been released. The ten songs on “Gone, Long Gone” reflect the eclectic nature of Steve Dawson’s work as a performer and producer. As a multi-instrumentalist and keen student of musical history, Steve brings a wide range of influences and musical knowledge to anything he does; his own album is no exception. Of the ten tracks, there are two contrasting instrumentals, showcasing Steve’s exceptional guitar skills, seven songs co-written with the brilliant Matt Patershuk, and one cover.

The cover is a song that everyone with any interest in music at all seems to love (apart from Rod Stewart, who apparently refused to sing on the Faces studio version of the song). Steve takes it at a very relaxed pace, building up to big harmonies in the chorus and showcase solos towards the end. It’s not quite as punchy as the original, but it’s an honest effort and a lovely homage. The two instrumentals demonstrate different facets of Steve’s work: his interest in Hawaiian music shines through “Kulaniapia Waltz”, creating an authentic feel with ukulele and steel guitar, plus the not-so-authentic pump organ while “Cicada Sanctuary” is a solo acoustic guitar piece inspired by hearing the noise of massed cicadas and being inspired to play something that fitted the mood. Both are very evocative mood pieces.

The remaining seven songs are the Matt Patershuk co-writes. Steve has always been wary of the collaboration process, but Matt’s a good friend and he’s a songwriter that knows how to write something that’s a bit different. The results are very impressive; “King Bennie had his Shit Together”, a fictionalised take on the life of Hawaiian steel guitarist King Bennie Nawahi, set against a backdrop of a jazzy bluegrass shuffle, tells an interesting story, cleverly pulling the listener into the first-person narrative of the tales of an old musician.

You can find historical musical references dotted throughout the album; the opener “Dimes” is a bit of fun that hints at Little Feat, “Bad Omen” and “6 Skeletons in a Car” (not as gruesome as it sounds) both have a brooding, menacing Southern groove feel while “I Just Get Lost” jumps into a chorus that strongly echoes The Beatles’ “Revolution”. You get the picture; there’s a lot of variety and you never quite know what’s round the next corner.

“Gone, Long Gone” is an album for people that want to actually listen to music, rather than passive consumers; the quality of the songwriting, playing and arrangement deserves much more than that. It’s out now on Black Hen Music (BHCD0096).

Here’s the official video for the album’s opener, “Dimes”:

“Scoundrels, Dreamers and Second Sons” is the debut album from The Remittance Men, a bunch of very gifted musicians from Boston, Massachusetts playing the songs of singer songwriter Tom Robertson (plus a couple of well-chosen covers). The band formed about two years ago as the pandemic broke and put together this collection of songs over that period. It’s difficult to pin down a specific genre; the song arrangements combine elements of the traditional string band with fiddle, mandolin, upright bass and acoustic guitar, keyboards, pedal steel and electric guitars from the country tradition, trumpets evoking Central America and even a horn section on “Lila Page 8”. It’s a wide palette and The Remittance Men fully explore its texture and colours. The varied elements are pulled together by the quality of Tom’s songs and his gravelly vocal delivery that never seems forced.

The songs are full of little vignettes; short descriptions of people and places fitting together to form the narrative framework of songs such “Sweet Thunder” following the route back home across America and “Lonely and Silent”, tracing the broken lives of people left behind as small businesses in rural America fell to the power of the multinationals; it’s not pretty, but it’s authentic. There are songs that feel deeply personal, without being particularly explicit, including the poignant opener, “1973 (Life on the High Seas)” and the historical “A Room in Birmingham England, 1919”.

The two songs that particularly grabbed my attention are probably the furthest from the traditional Americana canon, “Hacienda Santa Rosa” and “Lila Page 8”. “Hacienda…” uses Mexican rhythms and the inevitable trumpet to create a setting that works for the song’s lyrics. Moving in a completely different direction, “Lila Page 8” starts with a saxophone and trumpet intro and builds steadily to a full-on E Street Band/Asbury Jukes rock and soul arrangement with guitar solos flashing across the strident horns and big backing vocals. It’s a huge arrangement, and the heartfelt delivery suggests that this is another deeply personal song. Of the two covers, Tim Gearan’s delicate love song in triple time, “Nobody” follows “Lila…” contrasting with the massive arrangement and creates a low-key finish to the album. And the other cover is Tom Petty’s “Down South”, which fits in perfectly with pan-American feel of the album.

This is a fascinating debut from a writer with a gift for subtly combining a kaleidoscope of lyrical impressions against a backdrop of understated instrumental performances to create songs that just won’t quit.

“Scoundrels, Dreamers and Second Sons” is released on Friday March 25th on Blonde on the Tracks Records.

Here’s the video of “A Room in Birmingham England, 1919”:

It’s always good to hear new music from Track Dogs, particularly after the two years we’ve all just experienced. In common with a lot of recent releases, this is partly a lockdown creation and it’s another album that shows the way the creative impulse finds way under, above and around barriers. Instead of being hemmed in by enforced isolation, musicians have reached out across the world to become involved with each other’s projects. I always knew we’d find a good use for the internet; it just took a while.

Track Dogs are two Irishmen, and Englishman and an American, based in Madrid. That might sound like plenty of roots reference points right there from the English, Irish and American traditions, not to mention the Latin influences introduced by Howard Brown’s trumpet and flugelhorn. This time there’s a cover thrown in as well, a midtempo version of James Taylor’s “Carolina in My Mind”, which has even had a nod of approval from JT.

If you’ve heard the two previous albums, you’ll have some idea of what to expect of “Where to Now?”. Loads of variety in the musical arrangements and the lyrical themes, great instrumental performances and lovely four-part harmonies that hint at Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. The title song hints at the uncertainties we all currently face, while framing the lyrics as advice to someone to carry on with their chosen path; we’re all facing uncertain futures now, personally and in wider society. The other thing you can expect from a Track Dogs album is the unexpected; something a little out of the ordinary.

“Donna Lola” is a great example. It’s a zydeco-tinted arrangement that rattles along at a high tempo as it tells the story of Lola Montez and her life and many loves. It’s driven along by some strident accordion and a guest vocal from Cathy Jordan; it’s impossible not to be drawn into the whirlwind. The song ends with a spacey psychedelic fadeout heavily soaked in reverb before dying away; it’s a strange and memorable close to a monster of a song. The album’s closing song (not counting the two bonus tracks) “Empty Tracks” is full of rhythms and sounds that imitate a train’s movement and sounds and it’s inspired by the hush that fell on the railroads in the days of the first lockdown; it’s not often that you discover an artist’s muse is a train.

The remaining songs on the album are packed with rhythmic and melodic invention based around the folk traditions of England, Ireland and America. Bluegrass features prominently, but there are elements of Latin rhythms and string sections to add some extra spice to the musical stew. You won’t be bored listening to “Where to Now?”.

And there’s more good news. Track Dogs are in the UK to promote the album this month. You can find the tour dates here. I have a feeling that they’re going to be even better live than on record, so try and catch them while you can.

“Where to Now” is out now on Mondegreen Records (MGRO122).

Here’s a link to one of the album’s two bonus songs, “At a Time Like This”: